Dreadful Skin by Cherie Priest
In Dreadful Skin Cherie Priest has written a story in three parts that collectively are horror, fantasy and high drama. Set in the post Civil War landscape of the American south and west, it opens with “The Wreck of the Mary Byrd,” a story told from multiple points of view that unify into one tightly drawn werewolf tale. The tension is high, the night is dark and stormy and the monster is everything the savage old European fairy tales warned us about. Make no mistake, this is the wolf who ate little Red’s grandmother, and then had her for dessert. Interestingly, it is in the portions of the narrative where he speaks to the other characters that he takes on an even more menacing air. He is sinister, from the first moment he enters a room so speak, and after the Mary Byrd goes down, his later return finds him in an even more dangerous guise, as a monster we know, and yet still can not kill.
But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, in “The Wreck of the Mary Byrd” are the nun and the monster, the former slave, the gambler and everyone else who has gathered together for this fateful meeting on the Tennessee River. It’s Southern, it’s gothic and it’s dripping with atmosphere. Not since Caitlin Kiernan have I read such purely dark fantasy that inhales the geography that surrounds it. Even when Dreadful Skin moves west for the concluding novel it still holds firm to its southern roots. It made me think about heat and blackness and the forboding sense of dank possibility that lives in the bend a river at night. The final battle in the book takes place in a church for heaven’s sake -- if that’s not southern gothic (even in a town west of Texas called Mescalero), then I don’t know what is.
The book’s heroine is Eileen Callaghan, an Irish nun who is on the trail of Jack Gabert, once a man and now a sickly infected beast. Dreadful Skin follows the two as Eileen hunts and Jack evades. In the first story Eileen is just one of many voices and although it is clear that she is alone in knowing what Jack is, the other characters are just as significant to the narrative. Priest keeps the plot evenly drawn between all of them, moving from person to person as awareness creeps in on how badly it is determined to kill them all. The tension is thick as this is a hunt for a hungry monster and there is no stopping for long drawn out soliloquies about life and longing or questions of “should I” or “shouldn’t I.”
In the second piece of the collection Priest moves Eileen to a traveling tent revival and introduces the good Reverend Benjamin Aarons. In many ways this story serves as a bridge -- it carries Eileen from the catastrophe of the Mary Byrd to a final horrific meeting with Jack in “Our Lady of the Wasteland and the Hallelujah Chorus.” (Priest clearly has a gift for titles.) In “Halfway to Holiness” we begin to suspect just what Eileen’s attraction to Jack (or how she knows him so well) might be. More importantly, this is the story where Eileen meets the people who will figure so prominently in the end, and will be responsible for bringing her and Jack together again.
While “Halfway to Holiness” reminded me of countless southern tales of redemption and damnation (both always told hand in hand it seemed, even in my very Catholic, very Florida upbringing), the power is inPriest’s amazing gift for atmosphere and environment -- the way she places the reader so effectively in the middle of a late 19th century tent meeting with a man and a woman who are slowly coming apart. Consider this description:
But dark was coming. And there was the pound of the music and the crushing sweat of anxious bodies, the toxic perfume of a tent filled with blood.
Eileen put her face in her hands and breathed through her fingers.
And then moments later there is the right Reverend in his glory:
“We are here for this -- for the Word. We are here for the sound of salvation, as comes through Jesus Christ and no one else -- no where else. There is no store that sells it. There is no thief who steals it. There is no bank that loans it. There is only Jesus Christ.”
For the first time in weeks, Eileen shivered.
Of course even Jesus can’t save you from a curse -- can’t make the moon hide, or the bloodlust grow silent or the changes, the horrible awesome changes, stay dormant. And so there is only the nun and the reverend and the all that the lord can not do for two people in a place called Holiness, Texas. Priest writes them a battle, and a sacrifice, and ultimately an ending. And the reader can not believe what she finds there, can not stop going where Priest will bid you to follow.
In the end there is a girl who has become a captive and there is Jack who has taken the word of the lord and twisted it to his own buffet -- his own smorgasbord of the simple prairie people who naively look for something reassuring under a tent and tragically find something else. But even they are starting to get smart and when the tent show comes to smaller and smaller towns the people tell them to go, tell them not to linger, they keep their women and their children inside. And Jack and the rest of his followers get hungrier as the girl sends out letters for help. It is no surprise that Eileen will find her way to Jack again, because you know they have to be together in the end -- you know that is what will happen from the first moment they saw each other back on the Mary Byrd.
Dreadful Skin concludes in a scene that belonged (it seemed to me) to Clint Eastwood. I could not shake the images of High Plains Drifter as Eileen and her allies board themselves up in the church of an abandoned town they have set aflame. If you remember those “Spaghetti Westerns” then you will recall there was something of the southern gothic to them, even though filmed in Italy and set in the American west. “It shocks me to write, and as I reread the words I know how astonishing they appear,” writes Melissa in her plea for help. “But you may as well believe me. I’m the only one who remains from the time when you were with us. The rest are gone, buried or lost in the desert… or worse yet, they remain beside us, damned and walking.”
So paint the town red and write “welcome to hell” just as the man with no name did for his killers in Drifter. Eileen knows what she has to do. If they all must die then so be it because he will die no matter what..
Don’t think though that this is a worn out blood bath of a book -- pages drenched in horror and pain that bury the plot or destroy the narrative. That scenario could not be further from the truth. Is there violence? Well of course -- we are dealing with a werewolf here after all. But Priest has done such an amazing job of crafting this novel, she has created such deep and rich characters -- even those who are doomed -- in her descriptions and dialog. She has written a smash bang of a story; a tale that draws readers in from the very beginning and keeps you turning pages long into the night. You will not be able to let Eileen and her mission and all her inner conflict go -- she is the sort of character who stays with you from the first moment you meet. I was fairly dazzled by Dreadful Skin, by the innovative way that Priest has found to tell an age old story and by the richly chosen words she has used to embrace it. This one crosses all the genre lines and soundly delivers on the promise of good storytelling. A reader could not ask for anything more from a fiction writer, and Cherie Priest, thankfully, has given us her best.
Dreadful Skin by Cherie Priest